There has been a spate of plays about popular comedians in recent years, some excellent, it is true, some finding questionable psychological insights, but losing the comedian, and some relying heavily on the performance scripts of the subject. The most successful of these was probably Jerome Flynn’s glorious portrayal of Tommy Cooper which redeemed a cut-and-paste text.
Laurel & Hardy belongs to an earlier age. Written by radical poet Tom McGrath 35 years ago, it is more complex and more difficult to pin down. It’s presented by the late Stan and Ollie, reviewing their lives from the secure standpoint of the dead, though still shying away from that awful year, 1940, when the normally canny Mr Laurel took them away from the relatively democratic regime of Hal Roach. After a cartoon-style review of the early lives of our heroes, with the other performer assuming multiple parts, the focus moves to the partnership of the two characters, scenes from films and scenes from life merging and alternating until we reach a touching poetic statement of decline and, ultimately, death.
Damian Cruden’s production for York Theatre Royal gets pretty much everything right. I worried that the current In the Round configuration might not be suitable for a re-creation of performers whom we saw through four-square cinema images or proscenium arch theatres (as I did in the early 1950s). However, with the aid of Liam Doona’s ingenious and flexible designs, all is well.
Andre Vincent and Martin Barrass are a fine team. Vincent, fixing latecomers with a beady stare, has the body language for Hardy from the start, but takes a little while to find the voice and the accent. His ringing tenor reminds us of the excellence of Hardy’s singing voice, whether in the classic “Trail of the Lonesome Pine” from Way out West or calling his wares in Towed in a Hole. Martin Barrass is totally at home as Laurel, deploying a real clown’s face (though sometimes more reminiscent of Buster Keaton) and slapstick timing learned in many years of Theatre Royal pantomimes.
Though Ethel the Chimp (from the eponymous movie The Chimp) makes a bizarrely effective contribution to the evening, that is surpassed by Christopher Madin, in full fig as a Son of the Desert, masterminding music and effects from the piano stool.
There are occasional clunky moments when the script changes gear, but Laurel and Hardy is both suitably grown up and delightfully silly, as when the sombre depiction of their decline is followed, as a finale, by a re-creation of the duo’s quaintly dignified and irresistibly comic dance from Way Out West.